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September 22, 2008

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Fatal-fall risk was “entirely foreseeable”

A 50-year-old Polish labourer died after falling more than eight metres from the upper balcony area of a former cinema that was being converted into a nightclub.

Glasgow construction company Curot Contracts was fined £125,000 on 4 September at Falkirk Sheriff Court after pleading guilty to contravening s2(1) of the HSWA 1974 by failing to provide a safe system of work for its employees.

The court was told that Curot had been converting the former ABC cinema in Falkirk into a multi-level nightclub. As part of the construction work, some of the old structures that originally formed the seating area in the upper balcony were being removed so that new structural steelwork could be put in position to form the skeleton of the nightclub.

Witold Jelen and site manager David Cairney had been working at height, using power tools to remove parts of the original concrete slabs and upstands that formed the terraced structure on which the cinema’s seats used to be sited.

On 29 July 2007, the concrete slabs on which the two men were standing gave way under their feet, because the supporting mechanism holding them into the wall had already been cut away.

As Murray Provan, the HSE inspector who investigated the case, explained to SHP: “It was a bit like sitting on a tree branch and sawing your own branch off.”

A large part of the balconies in other parts of the building had been taken away by a previous sub-contractor, who had insisted on using a crash deck made from scaffolding to protect workers from falling, but Curot did not put a crash deck into position below the working area.

“There was nothing at all provided to either prevent a fall, or soften the landing of a fall,” the inspector said, adding: “Curot Contracts knew about the risks of falls, and knew what the system of work ought to have been. This accident was entirely foreseeable.”

It is believed Mr Jelen may have landed awkwardly and struck his head on concrete. His colleague survived the fall, suffering cuts and bruises.

Curot said in mitigation it accepted that the system of work that had been used had not been safe, and that the incident was ultimately its responsibility.

Inspector Provan warned: “Refurbishment projects comprise 40 per cent of construction activity in Britain, but more than 60 per cent of fatal accidents in the construction industry occur during such projects. This part of the construction industry will remain a priority area for inspectors.”

He further cautioned: “It is additionally important in this present difficult financial climate that essential safeguards are not omitted in the confusion of cost-cutting. Sensible health and safety standards must be maintained to avoid the unnecessary tragedies still prevalent in today’s construction industry.”

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